Tag Archives: book reviews

The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson

Dramatic reimagining of Henry Lawson’s short story

Content warning: sexual assault, graphic violence, child removal, racism, family violence

I have been doing quite a lot of running recently, so I am getting through audiobooks a little faster than usual. This has definitely been on my list. We all know the iconic Henry Lawson story about the drover’s wife up against a snake, but I was very interested to try out this gritty retelling.

Image is of the audiobook cover of “The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson” by Leah Purcell. The cover is of a pregnant woman (Leah Purcell) in period clothing and a wide-brimmed hat holding a shotgun and standing in a paddock. The text says “Now a major motion picture”.

“The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson” written by and narrated by Leah Purcell is a historical fiction novel that retells Lawson’s famous short story about a drover’s wife left alone with her four children for months at a time in the outback. Molly is pregnant and almost due to give birth, and all she has to protect her and the children is her gun and her dog Alligator. Vulnerable to intruders, natural disasters and poverty, when Aboriginal man Yadaka arrives at her property on the run from the law, she is reluctant to trust him. However, they gradually form a careful bond and Yadaka spends time telling stories to her eldest son Danny who craves a father figure. Meanwhile, Louisa Clintoff has moved from London to the alpine town of Everton with her husband Nate who is to be the new lawman. While they settle in to a completely different lifestyle, Nate’s big task is to solve some local murders. However, what he uncovers is even more shocking than he could ever have expected.

This is a tense, gritty novel that pulls absolutely no punches while re-examining 1800s colonial Australia. While there are plenty of nods to its inspiration, this novel is absolutely its own story and Molly has a voice and a history that shines through more loudly and clearly than ever did in Lawson’s book. Yadaka was a fascinating character as well, with a colourful, complex and painful backstory, he travelled the world while still maintaining a very strong connection with family, country and culture. Purcell’s world is a dangerous one, and in this story snakes are the least of Molly’s problems. The fear and the heartache Molly has for her children’s safety is visceral, and the horrors she encounters as an isolated woman in the bush are all too realistic.

Purcell clearly lives and breathes her story, and she was the perfect choice to narrate it. A seasoned actor herself, she does an excellent job of giving each character a voice and I particularly loved how she portrayed young Danny. While listening to this book, I found myself thinking that it felt like it could have been written for a film. Little did I know that Purcell originally wrote the story for stage and that it has in fact been adapted into a film slated for release next year. This book tackles head-on the treatment of Aboriginal people, and instead of being dismissed as convenient assistants to the white colonial project as Lawson did in his story, Purcell closely examines the many attempts to sever Aboriginal identity and connection to land by settlers. At the end of the audiobook, Purcell shares a bit about the creation of her story and her creative practice as an artist including the consultation with local Aboriginal communities from alpine country in New South Wales as well as her own heritage as a Goa-Gunggari-Wakka Wakka Murri woman.

One thing I did find a bit challenging was the number of narrative perspectives that were in this book. The prose shifts from first person to third person, and there are several characters who take turns in the spotlight. I did find that listening to the audiobook occasionally made it a bit difficult to keep track of who was whom. It is an action-packed book and full of some truly horrifying scenes, a couple of which I missed (with some relief) while out running.

An excellently research story laden with insight, emotion and commentary, I cannot wait to see the film adaptation with Purcell herself in the leading role.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction

An Irish Country Yuletide

A Christmas-themed novella from the Irish Country series

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. It has been a couple of years since I reviewed a Christmas-themed book, and I thought I would save this review for the first day of December and, incidentally, my inaugural Short Stack Reading Challenge. While I read this a little too early to count for my stack, this might be some festive inspiration for yours.

Image is of the eBook cover of “An Irish Country Yuletide” by Patrick Taylor. The cover looks like an oil painting of a window with holy and a candle in a warm foreground, and carol singers and a snowy village outside in cooler tones.

“An Irish Country Yuletide” by Patrick Taylor is a novella set in the “Irish Country” series about Dr Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly who has a general practice in the small Irish village of Ballybucklebo. Everyone in the village is getting ready for Christmas, and settling in to enjoy the traditions of the season. However, illnesses take no holidays, and between all the festivities, it is up to O’Reilly to make sure his patients and their families can celebrate as well.

This is an easy, cosy read that transports you to an idyllic Irish world in the mid-1960s. I had never read any of the other books in the series, but there was plenty of light exposition from Taylor to make sure any reader could slide into this book and quickly get up to speed. It is also an easy book from an emotional standpoint. Usually I don’t go for books that are overly saccharine but I think, during these difficult times, it is relaxing to read a book where things just work out, and no problem goes unsolved. O’Reilly is a sentimental old fellow, and between fulfilling his Christmas responsibilities, he takes the time to reflect on how far he has come with the people he loves. Then there was the huge bonus of Taylor including recipes! I have mentioned on here many, many times how much I love recipes in fiction. Unfortunately I didn’t get around to trying any out, but I very much appreciated that they were there.

Although perhaps all the loose ends are tied up a little too neatly in a bow, this book is nevertheless brimming with Christmas cheer and if you are looking to immerse yourself in a picturesque winter setting, then this is a lovely, low investment book to try.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Novella

The Hidden City

Epic fantasy about an orphan girl and a forgotten city

I am still chipping away at my to-read shelf, and in my efforts to tackle some of the fantasy books I have had lying around for some time, I remembered I had this one. I actually won 6 books in this series in the annual Worldbuilders fundraiser. Money donated goes to Heifer International, and each US$10 you donate secures you an entry in their lottery. I’ve donated over a few years, and one year was lucky enough to win a prize! I talk about it in much more depth in a podcast episode. Anyway, these books have been collecting dust for way too long so it was time to at least read the first one.

Image is of “The Hidden City” by Michelle West. The paperback novel is resting on a wooden table next to a carved bowl and below a knife with a burnished blade and a wooden handle. The cover has an image of a girl with curly hair holding a blade set inside a triangle. Outside the triangle are flowers made of stone.

“The Hidden City” by Michelle West is an epic fantasy novel and the first in the series called “The House War”. The book is about a young homeless girl named Jewel, who insists on being called Jay. When she tries to rob the mysterious and reclusive Rath, his attempts to reclaim his goods end up with him reluctantly taking a very sick Jay in. As the unlikely pair form a mentor-mentee bond, Jay begins to share her newfound fortune with other street children. However, Rath’s clandestine activities retrieving treasures from a forgotten city, Jay’s untested powers and an unspeakable crime ring reveal many more children in need of help and a growing danger that could threaten the entire world as they know it.

This is a deliberate, thoughtful novel with a strong focus on character development and morality. Despite Rath’s initial denial, the bond between him and Jay steadily strengthens and they each begin to have a profound effect on one another. I really enjoyed the other children who steadily trickled into Jay’s life, and how she slowly coaxes them out of their shells and unites them. I particularly liked Carver, and how West wove a bit of mystery around his background and why he was there at the right time. It is a high stakes novel, and West is not afraid of pushing her characters and their loyalties to their limits.

However, it is a slow-paced novel, and at times West’s painstaking review of the intricacies of each relationship feels like it stalls the story. While quirky at the beginning, Rath’s apparent refusal to acknowledge the extent to which he has welcomed Jay into his life begins to lose its impact. There were aspects of the worldbuilding that I felt could have been stronger. Although a street urchin, Jay’s abilities mean that she could potentially have secured a home studying to strengthen her powers, everyone dismisses that as an option for her without any adequate explanation. Many of the conversations are indirect and full of politicking, but West never really makes it clear whether all this dancing around is a cultural feature of this world or simply an attempt to build suspense.

I do also want to mention the book cover. As I said in the photo caption above, the cover has an image of a girl holding a blade. The girl has fair skin, curly light brown hair and light eyes that could be hazel in colour. In the book, Jay is described as having “[b]rown eyes, dark skin, unruly hair” and is later described as being biracial. This book was originally published in 2007, and there has been a lot of discourse about whitewashing book covers since then. I completely appreciate that authors often have very little say in these decisions, and that publishing houses like DAW have come a long way when it comes to representation, however I think it’s still important to acknowledge that this is something that happens – even to authors like Ursula K. Le Guin!

I could see a lot of potential in this book for an epic fantasy series, and those who like to get absorbed in for hours and hours in another world may very well get a lot out of it, but I don’t think I’m quite hooked enough to read the other 5 books I won (let alone the rest of the series).

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Call Me By Your Name

Queer literary romance about identity and growing up

Content warning: sexual themes, reference to abuse

While looking for audiobooks that fit my strict criteria (9 hours or less), I came across this one. I had heard many, many things about this book because it was adapted into a film starring Timothée Chalamet who everyone is constantly talking about for some reason. I was really keen to see the film, but I decided to listen to the book first.

Image is of the audiobook cover of “Call Me By Your Name” by André Aciman. The cover shows a young man resting his head on the shoulder of another man. They are both looking up at a blue sky.

“Call Me By Your Name” by André Aciman and narrated by Armie Hammer is a Bildungsroman about Elio, a 17 year old Jewish Italian-American boy whose parents have a house in Italy. Every summer, Elio must give up his room to a university student invited by his academic father to stay for 6 weeks. This particular summer, in the mid-1980s, the student invited is Oliver. Eminently cool in his seeming indifference, Elio is surprised to find himself extremely attracted to older Oliver. As Elio fantasises more and more vividly about Oliver, he begins to question what this means for his own sexuality and whether the erotic tension between them is truly unrequited.

This is an exquisitely written novel that is as much a love letter to the male form as it is an exploration of a young man’s transition into adulthood. Aciman’s prose is some of the most beautiful and compelling I have come across in a long time. He captures perfectly that teenage obsessiveness, where you get sucked into the vortex of every single detail of every single interaction. Where the time spent thinking about experiences that have or could happen is almost more intoxicating than the reality. The film was a great adaption, but it is a challenge to put on screen prose that takes place largely in the protagonist’s mind – especially when that prose is so captivating in its apparent raw honesty. This book is full of layers and layers of depth, and I found myself wondering whether the names Elio and Oliver were intentionally chosen because of how many letters they shared.

I think this story, in both book and film format, has become iconic. It inspired Lil Nas X’s song “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” and Sufjan Steven wrote a song specifically for the film that is just magical. The European summer setting is of itself so enticing, where intellectualism and hedonism intertwine in a sublime way. There are some iconic scenes in this book, and one of my favourites is where Elio’s father speaks to him about his friendship with Oliver. That conversation is such a fantastic template for a parent supporting their child’s sexuality, though I found myself wondering if part of the reason Elio’s father had such great empathy was the suggestion that he himself had experienced something similar.

I also have to say something about the narration, which was done by Hammer who actually played Oliver in the film adaptation. He did a phenomenal job narrating this book; and although the book is told from Elio’s perspective, Hammer’s familiarity with the subject matter brings a noticeable intimacy to an already very intimate book. He has a clipped, deep American voice that was very easy to listen to. However, I cannot laude his performance without mentioning the abuse allegations that have been made about him over the past year. I didn’t know about this at the time I listened to the audiobook or watched the film, and in fact it was only in reading more about the actors that I read about the allegations.

While the accusations levelled against the narrator may dissuade you from listening to the audiobook, I cannot recommend Aciman’s novel enough. I understand that he has written a follow up novel called “Find Me” and I am definitely going to read it.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, General Fiction

The Diviner’s Tale

Mystery thriller novel about a water diviner who finds a lost girl

Content warning: kidnapping, sexual assault, Alzheimer’s disease

I picked up this book at the Lifeline Book Fair for one reason and one reason only: the tinted edges. Like many of the books I have been reviewing recently, this is another one that has languished on my to-read pile. So between all the fantasy, the books turned into adaptations and the other books with tinted edges, I decided it was time to read this one.

Image is of “The Diviner’s Tale” by Bradford Morrow. The paperback book is resting in grass next to a stick in the shape of an arrow. The cover is of a girl in a white dress standing in a misty, green forest. The book has blood red tinted page edges.

“The Diviner’s Tale” by Bradford Morrow is a mystery thriller novel about a woman called Cassandra who, between teaching classes in remedial reading and Greek myths and raising her twin boys as a single parent, has followed in her father’s footsteps as a water diviner. One day while dowsing land for a property, Cassandra sees the body of a young girl hanged from a tree. When she alerts the authorities, including her old friend and local sheriff Niles, and returns to the location the girl, all traces of her is gone. Cassandra is under a lot of stress with family challenges, and initially people think she must have imagined it. However, when a different girl emerges from the woods after being reported missing, Cassandra must acknowledge the visions that she has had since she was young, and face the traumas of her past before they catch up with her.

This was a readable, character-driven book that has a really strong sense of place. From Upstate New York to Mount Desert Island, Maine, Morrow engages deeply with the landscape and using Cassandra’s skills as a diviner to explore the geology and flora of the area was a unique way to do it. I liked the tension within Cassandra and her dad Nep between belief in the artform of dowsing and worry that they are nevertheless frauds. Cassandra of course is named after the Cassandra of Greek mythology, and while this isn’t the first modern day interpretation of Cassandra’s prophecies I’ve read, it was well done. I thought that his depiction of a parent living with Alzheimer’s disease was done well, and I loved Cassandra’s relationship with her twin boys, and their relationship in turn with their grandparents. I also liked that her kids Morgan and Jonah began to develop their own identities as the book progressed.

However, this is a dark book and the elements of her past that Cassandra tries to forget are very confronting. While thinking back on this book, it occurred to me that overwhelmingly Cassandra’s relationships were with men: her father, her sons, her ex-lovers and her friends. Her relationship with her mother is a little tense, and while I appreciated that she had a reputation for being a bit eccentric, I think perhaps I would have liked more women in this book (aside from Cassandra herself) than mothers and victims.

A well-written book that is hard-going thematically at parts.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Mystery/Thriller, Tinted Edges

The Beast’s Heart

Beauty and the Beast Retelling from the Beast’s Perspective

Content warning: suicide attempt

I received a copy of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog. The author is a Canberra local, and one of the authors whose books were available at the pre-lockdown VIP fantasy and science fiction event. I’ve been on a bit of a fantasy streak recently, and this book is another one that has been sitting on my shelf for far too long. I really love the copper foil detail on the cover, and you can see from the photo below how it catches the light.

Image is of “The Beast’s Heart” by Leife Shallcross. The paperback book is resting against a wooden fence overgrown with vines and flowering bushes. The cover is navy blue with a black metal gate and vines and the title in copper foil.

“The Beast’s Heart” by Leife Shallcross is a fantasy novel that retells the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” from the Beast’s perspective. After years of running wild in the woods, a beast finds his way back home to his overgrown chateau. Over time he begins to regain some clarity of thought, and the chateau in turn awakens to do his bidding. When a man arrives at the chateau in need of help, Beast shows him hospitality. However, using his magic, Beast contrives to trap the man into an unthinkable bargain: his life for a year with his youngest daughter. When the beautiful Isabeau arrives at the chateau, she has everything she could ever want and more: a beautiful garden, entertainment, delicious food and friendship. However, when Beast asks her to marry him, she cannot possibly say yes. Unbeknownst to Isabeau, Beast is under a curse and if he cannot find true love, he is doomed.

This is a gentle, lyrical reimagining of one of the world’s most well-known fairy tales. Shallcross depicts the Beast as someone who is rigidly principled, in an unwinnable war between his passions and his morals. Shallcross contrasts the idyll of Beast and Isabeau’s days with the much simpler, busier lives of Isabeau’s sisters who are left behind to learn how to work in their much reduced station. Telling the story from the Beast’s point of view is a unique take on a classic story. A slow-burn romance, Shallcross spends a lot of time exploring friendship as the foundation for a relationship. Shallcross’ backstory for the Beast, especially in relation to his beloved grandmother, was probably my favourite part of the book and showcased her creativity. I also did enjoy the scenes with Isabeau’s sisters, and I felt that out of all the characters they underwent the most character development, learning to live within their means and open their hearts.

Although Shallcross has stayed close to the original version of the fairy tale, in which Beauty is too obtuse to work out that the Beast and the man she dreams about are one and the same, I found it really frustrating that the otherwise bright and insightful Isabeau wasn’t able to put two and two together. I also found it frustrating that she seemed to lack curiosity, and although Beast asks her again and again to marry him, she doesn’t every consider why on earth he would put himself through the emotional torture. Without much productive conversation, the many chapters of Beast and Isabeau sitting in parlours felt a bit slow and while the scenes of Isabeau’s family broke things up a bit, I think there was room for a bit more fire and chemistry between the two. Perhaps Isabeau’s agreement to stay for a year was too long.

An original take on a classic story that perhaps needed fewer magical fireworks and more metaphorical fireworks.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Pretty Books

The Lifeboat

Historical fiction about being stranded in a lifeboat

Content warning: suicide

I picked up this book some time ago from the Lifeline Book Fair for an obvious reason: the beautiful tinted edges. They are such a deep turquoise colour and the cover design itself is really striking. The endsheets have a map showing shipping routes across the Atlantic Ocean. I’m still chugging away at my to-read shelf, and it has been a little while since I have read one of my books with tinted edges, so I chose this one.

Image is of “The Lifeboat” by Charlotte Rogan. The hardcover book is resting on a dark navy surface with an empty blue tin cup on its side next to it and a boat made out of newspaper just above. The cover has a small image of a lifeboat silhouetted against light on the horizon, with the sea below and the sky above almost identical in colour: dark turquoise.

“The Lifeboat” by Charlotte Rogan is a historical fiction novel about a young woman called Grace who is on trial with two other women. Weeks earlier, she finds herself on a lifeboat as the ocean liner she and her husband were sailing on is sinking. Before long it becomes clear that the lifeboat is overcrowded and is riding too low in the water. Despite taking turns to bail out the water, the passengers realise that to survive, some will have to be sacrificed. As Grace presents her testimony to the court, the reader is left wondering what truly happened on that boat?

Shipwrecks and being stranded at sea are almost always interesting stories because they place an often large number of people within a very limited amount of space and put them under the enormous pressure of surviving in extreme conditions until they are either rescued or die waiting. The absolute highlight of this book was the perspective. Grace is a deeply enigmatic character who initially seems very innocent but who later lets slips moment of ambition and manipulation that leave the reader questioning exactly how reliable her recollection of the events was. Rogan is a strong writer and the juxtaposition between the crowdedness of the boat and the emptiness of the sky and sea around them was truly unsettling. I felt that Rogan really captured the discomfort and pain that comes along with exposure and starvation and the book felt really realistic and well-researched.

While I thought it was well-written, I’m not quite sure the ending was landed. While I appreciate that Grace was the main character we were concerned with, I didn’t feel connected to any of the other characters except perhaps Mr Hardie. Grace, in true narcissistic form, talked about her interactions with them but not really much about their natures. I would have liked to have known a lot more about Hannah. While I understood that Rogan was angling for subtlety when suggesting what was truly happening on the ocean liner before it sank and how Grace came to be on the boat on the first place, I think a bit more depth or a few more moments of leaning into Grace’s unreliability would have made the ending more hard-hitting.

A well-written and easy book to read that left me with plenty to think about but wishing for a little more punch.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Mystery/Thriller, Pretty Books, Tinted Edges

Betrothed

Urban fantasy young adult romance novel

I am currently on a bit of a fantasy bender in an attempt to get through my to-read shelves, including some which are taken up by fantasy series. In a previous post, I talked about how my book club and I won a fantastic trivia event: well, this was my prize! A series of four books including one signed by the author. I hadn’t read them before, but the covers are all quite beautiful with a reflective, pearlescent effect. They have waiting on my shelf for three years collecting dust and now was the time to read them.

Image is of “Betrothed” by Wanda Wiltshire. The paperback book is resting on top of some shiny purple wings. The cover has a silhouette of a young man and a young woman holding his hand in hers. They are standing on a rock with ocean and mountains behind them. The cover has a pearlescent effect and behind the man is the faintest outline of wings.

“Betrothed” by Wanda Wiltshire is the first book in the urban fantasy young adult romance series of the same name. The story is about a 17 year old girl called Amy who has had a challenging upbringing. Living in Sydney, her delicate health and countless allergies have drastically impacted her life, not to mention the fact that she is adopted. While she has some close friends, school is difficult and she is frequently picked on because of her skin reactions to just about everything. When she starts having incredibly realistic dreams with a voice calling out for someone called Marla, Amy initially doubts that they could be true. However, when the mysterious Leif arrives in person, Amy begins to question exactly who she is.

This is a light-hearted that is about love and identity. Wiltshire doesn’t take herself too seriously, and Amy leaves upbeat Sydney for even more upbeat Faera, and we gradually learn the truth about her heritage. Wiltshire gently explores some of the real difficulties of living with severe allergies, and Amy’s struggles with her health are counterbalanced by the enjoyment she is able to derive from the simplest things like scented baths and lavish food in Faera. Wiltshire introduces some tension with a loose love triangle and intergenerational grudges, and a countdown to Amy’s 18th birthday upon which her future hangs.

While not overtly religious, there are certainly some very traditional ideas about male and female roles including the idea that female faeries are created from a piece of a male faery’s soul which is all very Eve made from Adam’s rib. A lot of the book is spent examining Amy’s feelings and disbelief in relation to her newly discovered identity, and everyone in the human world seems happy to exist as a supporting cast for her. I found the Faera world a bit disconcerting. Wiltshire describes a utopia with no money, nothing wanting and no aging, and I found it hard to wrap my head around a society where everything appears to be predetermined. I felt that although a lot of information and conflict had been introduced early on in the book, the plot plateaued and it didn’t feel like much was happening for the second half. Amy didn’t really undergo much character development, and I would have liked to have seen more depth to her than romantic interest.

Readable enough but not particularly ground-breaking in terms of concept or themes.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Young Adult

The Midnight Library

Speculative fiction novel about life after death

Content warning: suicide ideation, suicide completion, mental health, self-harm

A couple of people had recommended this book to me, and when I saw it was available as an audiobook and less than 9 hours long (and therefore within my attention span), I decided to try it out. I was a little bit skeptical because the title and premise reminded me a lot of Audrey Niffenegger’s excellent graphic novel “The Night Bookmobile“. However, without examining it too closely, I chose it as my next running book.

Image is of the audiobook cover of “The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig and narrated by Carey Mulligan. The cover has a building in the centre that appears to be made of paper coloured white on the outside, and vague rainbow on the inside. The building is set against a night sky filled with stars, and there is a silhouette of a white cat to the left. There is text that says “One library. Infinite lives.”

“The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig and narrated by Carey Mulligan is a speculative fiction novel about a woman in her 30s called Nora whose life is falling apart. She’s lonely, she’s just lost her job and her cat has died. All her family are either dead or estranged. All her dreams of success have fallen by the wayside, and she can no longer think of any reasons to live and just wants the pain to end. However, after Nora completes suicide, she finds that things have not, in fact, ended. Instead, she has arrived in an enormous library full of books of all the alternate lives she could have had. Forced to closely examine all of her biggest regrets, are these other lives really better than the life she has chosen to leave behind?

Coincidentally, this is the third relatively new-release book I have read recently that uses speculative fiction to explore what happens after you die. Here is the first and here is the second, and I think this one is probably my favourite of them. This is a compelling book that gives an honest account of mental health, depression and the things that can lead to someone thinking about suicide. Haig skilfully and realistically conjures Nora’s alternative lives; and even her lives of dazzling success, wild adventure and complete contentment are grounded in the realm of possibility.

One of the things I liked the most about this book is how Nora’s mental health struggles were subtly woven into each possible life: emerging in different ways and requiring different treatment but nevertheless one of the constants. Haig uses trauma and grief to highlight how mental health can suddenly deteriorate, and that seeking help when you need it is crucial. While overall uplifting, this book is at no point overly saccharine or unrealistic about recovering from mental illness. Haig is honest with the readers about the work it takes to live with and live through depression. However, I liked that he took the time to write about the small positive ways you impact the world around you and that “success” comes in many forms. Mulligan was an excellent narrator and made Nora relatable and believable. I was a bit shocked however to learn that not everyone pronounces the word lichen the same!

While I enjoyed this book, there were a few points of logic that didn’t quite make sense to me. The first was in relation to the other Noras whose lives Nora stepped into. Via another character, Haig explains that the other Nora is simply absent and then returns with amnesia about what happened. Assuming both Noras are equally real, I think that the ethics of simply erasing someone temporarily, even if it’s another iteration of yourself, weren’t really adequately examined. I thought that Haig could have perhaps suggested something else instead, such as that the replaced Nora went to her own midnight library. I also felt that Haig several times suggested that Nora’s decision to pursue a particular career to extreme success necessarily had a negative impact on someone in her life, like a price that had to be paid, and I wasn’t sure that always had to be the case. I could nit-pick a few other examples, but I doubt anyone else is interested in quantum ethics and the experience of time and memories in a fictional scenario.

A well-written book with well-executed concept, it definitely leaves you thinking and gives you some great conversation starters to ask your friends.

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Unsettled Ground

Family drama novel about parents, poverty and isolation

Content warning: themes of control, parental death

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. This is actually the second book I have read by this author and I was looking forward to it.

Image is of the eBook cover of “Unsettled Ground” by Claire Fuller. The cover is a collection of colour flowers and fruit against a black background that on closer inspection appear to be wilting and rotting.

“Unsettled Ground” by Claire Fuller is a novel about twins Jeanie and Julius who unusually, at age 51, still live at home with their mother Dot in a small rural cottage in England. However when their mother suddenly dies, Dot’s carefully balanced, hand to mouth existence begins to crumble around them. The twins begin to realise just exactly how many secrets their mother was keeping from them, and how much she was keeping them from the rest of the world.

This is a disquieting novel that really resonated with me. When I was 18 years old, I lived in the West Midlands in the UK for about 6 months with relatives in a rural area, and Fuller really captured that village setting perfectly. Fuller unpacks in an incredibly realistic way have unnavigable society is for people who are disadvantaged, and examines in close detail the practicalities of life without access to a car, running water or electricity. I thought that Fuller handled writing about literacy difficulties especially well, and watching the recent TV documentary “Lost for Words” shortly afterwards helped me see just how accurately Fuller captured the stigma around lack of literacy but also the workarounds people develop to get by. The other thing I really liked about this book is the relentlessness of the life administration, even and especially in death, and how Dot doing everything for her children really left them unequipped to cope. Fuller pushes this scenario to its extreme, exploring each individual vulnerability to its limit while still remaining well within the realm of possibility.

While the setup for this book was extremely engaging, I’m not sure that in the end it landed. Fuller tiptoes around Dot’s character, and while I appreciate leaving some things to the imagination, there is never really much speculation about why she limited her children’s interaction with the outside world so much. Throughout the book, Jeanie and Julius learn more about their mother’s personal life through those closest to her, but never really why she had absolute control over the way the home was run and made absolutely no contingency plans whatsoever. Of course I accept that this happens all the time in real life, but in many ways Dot was the most interesting character in the book and we got only the faintest spectre. I also appreciate that people fall between the cracks, and it is hard to know what truly goes on in someone’s home. That being said, none of Dot’s friends seemed to think it was particularly strange that her two adult children in their 50s lived at home with her and had next to no life skills whatsoever.

Fuller proves again that she is a master of exploring the intricate and disturbing minutiae of an isolated life and if the ending is not full of drama, the journey certainly is.

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